Why Everyone Should Have the Experience of Being Foreign At Some Point in Their Life
There is a certain fact about myself that may seem rather obvious, but is something that I come face-to-face with on a daily basis.
I am never going to be Moroccan.
I can learn Darija to the best of my ability, I can learn how to cook tagines and couscous and know where to get the best zlefa de bissara in the city, know how to haggle with shop owners and carry on a decent conversation with my taxi driver. I could, I suppose, dye my hair darker, wear a djellaba every day, wear thicker make-up, but really none of this is ever going to make me native to this country. I will always be an outsider. A foreigner. Gauwria.*
*(the moroccan word for foreigner)
Sometimes I find this fact easy to accept, keeping pride in where I come from and recognizing that it makes me who I am wherever I go. However, there are those days when I just get frustrated. All I want is to fit in and any reminder that I don’t feels like a blow to my self-confidence. It sways back and forth between the two on a daily basis. One minute I can have a natural conversation in Arabic with the man selling fruit on the corner and feel great about myself, then two seconds later some sketchy guy mutters “hola, guapa, bienvenidos,” as I pass him on the street and I am reminded that everything about me sticks out like a super-blonde sore thumb.
While my own life as a foreigner has its ups and downs, I have never been more grateful for an experience and firmly believe that everyone should step into this world of otherness at least once in their life. Here are the main reasons why, in my humble opinion:
1. It forces you to learn how to defend your beliefs and values- and deeply respect those of others.
If you are never in the position of being the outsider, you will always think that you are the majority and therefor your opinions, values, and what makes you you is probably the right way to do things. Generally, we grow up in communities where the values presented are at least familiar to us. However, when you step into a completely different culture, suddenly you are faced with someone else’s truth, something that may have never even occurred to you before they spoke it. Living in Morocco, recognizing my foreignness has made me realize that my opinions are just that- opinions. They are one-sided and can only be strong and grounded if I am prepared to defend them and look at them from different angles. The more multidimensional your beliefs and opinions, the more prepared you are to listen and respect others.
2. You see what your home country looks like from the outside and realize you can’t bring everything with you.
I was struck by the words of Isabel Allende in her autobiography My Invented Country, when she wrote about being a foreigner in America and looking at our values from the outside in, putting things in a very different sort of light:
“The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to the pursuit of happiness, which anywhere else would be an embarrassing presumption. North Americans also believe they have the eternal right to be entertained, and if any of their rights are denied, they feel frustrated. The rest of the world, in contrast, expects that on the whole, life is hard, and boring, so they celebrate sparks of joy and diversion, however modest, when they occur.”
As an American living in, as Allende puts it, the rest of the world, I am deeply humbled by these words. Us Americans like to think that we have a lot of things figured out in our country, but if I walked around with that attitude every day my ego would be constantly crushed to a pulp.
Allende reminds us that no matter where we come from, we should never take the little joys for granted and also never assume that people expect the same from the world as you do. Ways of living in one country cannot simply be copied and pasted on another. If I want to live in Morocco, I have to step outside of my bubble of what I expect from life in America, from big things like how I approach discussions on religion to small things like wishing I could always have my pantry stocked with quinoa and sesame honey almonds from Trader Joes.
3. You recognize your privilege.
Perhaps I may be more unwantingly noticeable in the streets, shop vendors might hike up the prices when they see me coming, and I will constantly have people asking me whether I’ve converted yet, but on the whole, I recognize that being a foreigner here comes with massive privilege. This recognition is is something everyone needs a bit more of these days, no matter what country you are in. Because I am a foreigner here, it comes with certain benefits. Certain freedoms. First of all, I have the freedom to leave this country whenever I like. My passport is one of the strongest in the world and if I for some reason were to decide that life is too hard in one country, I could skip over to another. Most people do not have this open door that is always there, just in case.
On a similar vein of thought, people here already expect me to do things differently than them, so my actions are under less of a judgement-filled microscope than they would be in my hometown. The writer Patricia Marx said on this experience,
“Whatever you do takes place in a capsule that need not be discovered and opened by someone back home. Nothing really counts–it is the life that falls in the forest.”
This could make one feel a bit aimless and isolated if you really think about it, but it also allows for a certain kind of freedom to do whatever you please and call yourself whatever you want. Redefinition of your own character is an incredible luxury.
Not only can you redefine yourself, but a new context redefines where you came from as well. You can see more clearly the advantages, benefits and comforts that you had in the place you called home and learn to appreciate them with deeper gratitude and awareness. I am sure that living here has taught me to take a lot less for granted.
This whole idea of what it is to feel foreign, the ups and downs and complexities, is something I love to talk about and could discuss for pages and pages, but for now I will just scratch the surface. Yes, it may be often quite difficult to live as an outsider in a given country for an extended period of time, but it also allows for you to cultivate this growing awareness of yourself, how you relate to others and learn deeply about people who are incredibly different from you. As Bill Bryson wrote on the experience of being foreign,
“Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”
The longer you put yourself in this experience (going on four years over here), the more you learn and the more interesting your existence, your identity and your world view become. I dare say that everyone could use a little bit of this at some point in their life.